If James Gordon Bowden III knows how to do anything, it’s working under circumstances that would make most people run, screaming, for the door. From the time the mercurial Marge Schott hired him to run the Cincinnati Reds to the start of his current term as GM of the orphaned Washington Nationals, he has been able to remain focused on wheeling and dealing.
We’ll split Bowden’s tenures with the two teams into separate posts, starting today with his Cincinnati tenure. Download reds_trades_under_bowden_iii.xls here – a spreadsheet listing all of Bowden’s trades as the Reds’ GM.
For a guy who eventually earned the nickname “Trader Jim,” Bowden’s career as a trafficker in baseball players began inauspiciously. His first deal after taking over the Reds in 1992 sent outfielder Paul O’Neill to the Yankees. O’Neill, a key member of Cincy’s 1990 World Series champions, went on to become the heart and soul of the end-of-the-century Yankees’ dynasty.
Bowden was only 31 years old when Schott hired him. At the time, he was the youngest general manager in Major League history. Perhaps his inexperience provided a built-in alibi for the swap, which sent O’Neill and a minor-leaguer to New York for the eminently forgettable Roberto Kelly.
If Bowden’s first deal was a disaster – try to find a Reds fan who doesn’t think it was – it didn’t stop him from making 100 other trades in his 10½ years at the Cincinnati helm.
Former Mets GM Steve Phillips once told Tim Kurkjian of ESPN: The Magazine, “Jim Bowden is the guy who will call you at 1:30 in the morning and say, ‘I have the deal that will win the World Series for you.’”
Bowden took over a 90-win team and watched them lose big in 1993. Then the Reds ruled the newly-formed NL Central for a couple of years. They won the division in ’95 with a top-tier salary structure but Schott ordered a payroll cut in the off-season and drove manager Davey Johnson out of town.
Bowden managed to keep the Reds’ core together but Cincinnati dropped to a .500 record in 1996 on the way to a stretch of sub-mediocrity until a brief revival five years later. After this blip, the Red spent the 2000s far out of contention.
In 2002, Bowden came under heavy fire for comparing a potential players walkout to the 9/11 attacks, with the public pillorying him for insensitivity to the victims of terrorism and MLB thrashing him for speaking publicly about labor negotiations.
He was fired along with manager Bob Boone in July 2003 and then spent a year and a half doing occasional studio analysis for ESPN until the Montreal/Washington opportunity opened up.
As the Reds’ GM, Bowden established some productive relationships with a handful of other GMs, notably John Hart of the Indians, Woody Woodward of the Mariners, Randy Smith of the Tigers and John Schuerholz of the Braves, all of whom are out of the business as of this time.
Several of Bowden’s preferred trading partners in the Reds years still run MLB teams, though. Bowden engineered six swaps each with Dave Dombrowski (five with the Marlins and one with the Tigers) and Dan O’Dowd of the Rockies. Bowden also worked four deals with Bill Bavasi, GM of the Angels at the time.
O’Dowd clearly was a favorite dance partner. During a year and a half span after O’Dowd took over the Colorado operation in 1999, he and Bowden traded a total of 17 players.
The Rockies (nine trades) were Bowden’s favorite team to deal with overall from 1993 through 2003. The Indians came in a close second with eight trades. As a trader, Bowden split his deals evenly between the leagues (51 with the AL; 49 with the NL.) He swung 21 deals with teams in the National League East teams (19 after the six-division set up was introduced), his favorite division.
Bowden seems not to be terribly shy about acquiring controversial or troubled players, dealing for Deion Sanders in Cincy and Jose Guillen in Washington. He often sought established veterans whose better days had passed, including Kevin Mitchell twice, Lee Smith, Ruben Sierra, Greg Vaughn and Dante Bichette. Only Bichette and the second Mitchell acquisition could be considered stretch drive deals.
Sean Casey and Danny Graves flowered after Bowden trades brought them to Cincy. Bowden missed recognizing Paul Konerko’s potential, getting him from the Dodgers, then sending him to the White Sox for Mike Cameron. After one year, Bowden turned Cameron around, peddling him, Brett Tomko and a couple of palookas to the Mariners for Ken Griffey, Jr.
The February 2000 Griffey deal was Bowden’s biggest in Cincinnati. A native of Cincinnati whose father was part of the Big Red Machine, Griffey was brought in to jumpstart a revival that, it was hoped, would put a contender in Great American Ballpark when it opened in 2003. It wasn’t a bad gamble, considering that Griffey at the time of the trade was acknowledged as one of the two or three top players in the game. Additionally, the Reds had just come off two straight second-place finishes. Griffey’s subsequent streak of injuries played a part in Bowden’s demise in Cincinnati.
Bowden called the shots in 11 entry drafts for the Reds. Only Austin Kearns (1998) became a productive big leaguer. (Incidentally, C.J. Nitkowski, selected in 1994, started one of the very first pro athlete personal websites, offering stream-of-consciousness in diary form that presaged blogs.) Among Bowden’s later Reds draft choices, only Jeremy Sowers (2001, first round) and Joey Votto (2002, second round) seem to offer promise. Bowden apparently was impressed with a Long Island high school left handed pitcher named Nick Markakis, drafting him twice, in 2001 and 2002. Markakis declined to sign both times, converted to the outfield in college and eventually signed with the Orioles.
Tainted by the 9/11 remark and saddled with a team that would go on to lose 93 games, Bowden was fired in mid-season 2003 along with manager Bob Boone. His reputation as a glib bargainer was well-established, his survival through the Schott years was a testament to his resilience, but even after a decade at the helm, no one could say if Bowden had the capability of building a contender with staying power.
Next up: the Washington experience.